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Jeff Jacoby / May 16, 2022

Who’s Afraid of Liberal Media Bias?

Our society would be healthier if Americans shared more common ground.

By all the usual auguries, Republicans are headed for sweeping gains in the midterm elections.

“It’s going to be a terrible cycle for Democrats,” Doug Sosnik, a former senior advisor to Bill Clinton, told The New York Times last month. Amy Walter, the editor of the Cook Political Report, says both parties are bracing for “a Red Tsunami.” According to CNN’s Chris Cillizza, “the signs are all there” for a GOP takeover of Capitol Hill: “President Joe Biden is unpopular, Republican base voters are more energized than Democratic ones, and House Democratic retirements are near historic highs.”

Of course an upset is always possible. But it seems reasonable to predict that voters this fall, barring something truly unexpected, will hand control of both houses of Congress to the Republican Party. Democratic loyalists and progressive activists, who detest the GOP and see conservatives as a mortal threat to American democracy, will be aghast. Which means that much of the traditional news media, whose liberal political bias and Democratic affinity have long been widely recognized as facts of American life, will be aghast as well.

When Republicans in the midterm elections of 1994 won control of the House and Senate for the first time since 1952, leading journalists rained contempt on the electorate for its turn to the right. Peter Jennings, then ABC’s most prominent news anchor, likened the voters to two-year-olds having a tantrum: “the stomping feet, the rolling eyes, the screaming — it’s clear that the anger controls the child and not the other way around…. Imagine a nation full of uncontrolled two-year-old rage. The voters had a temper tantrum last week.”

In the 2010 midterms, the GOP picked up 63 House seats. It was the largest shift since the Truman administration, and President Obama candidly acknowledged the “shellacking” he’d received from the voters. But again the reaction in some quarters of the media was to sneer.

Expect something similar if the predicted “red tsunami” does indeed materialize in November. Railing against Republicans and conservatives, along with warnings about the horrors to come if they prevail, have been regular features of “mainstream” journalism for as long as I can remember. And for as long as I can remember, Republicans and conservatives have resented and condemned the unfair coverage of their candidates and causes by the leading media outlets.

Donald Trump, of course, made that resentment and condemnation a signal feature of his political persona, labeling the press “the enemy of the American people,” relentlessly mocking journalists and media outlets as “failing,” “dishonest,” or “terrible,” and disparaging any coverage he didn’t like as “fake news.” Many of Trump’s animadversions were ridiculous and crude, but there is no question that in elite media circles he and his followers were thoroughly detested. Just as conservatives and Republicans had been detested in those media circles long, long before Trump came on the scene.

By now, bitterness toward what Sarah Palin called the “lamestream media” for its anticonservative prejudice has been incorporated into the ideological DNA of the Republican Party. In 2017, National Review’s editor-in-chief Rich Lowry remarked that “the media has become for the right what the Soviet Union was during the Cold War — a common, unifying adversary of overwhelming importance.” My sense five years later is that conservatives are more infuriated by liberal media bias than ever before. The irony is that liberal media bias has never mattered less.

Really, how much did it ever matter? For all that those of us on the right have decried or dissected the anti-Republican hostility that flourishes in the newsrooms of The New York Times, NPR, or the Big Three broadcast networks, that hostility was never all that potent.

Intense media animus, after all, didn’t keep Trump in 2016 from winning the GOP nomination and the general election. The press reviled Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, yet both were elected to the White House, then re-elected in massive landslides. Newt Gingrich and the House Republicans’ “Contract with America” were mercilessly skewered in the media, but that didn’t prevent the GOP’s historic romp to victory in 1994. During Obama’s presidency, Republicans were inundated with negative coverage. Yet those were the years when Republican pickups at every level of government left the GOP stronger than it had been in 80 years. And despite being excoriated by the media for offenses ranging from “voter suppression” to defending the filibuster to opposing Roe v. Wade, Republicans appear to be heading for another historic triumph at the polls.

Like the wizard of Oz, the mainstream media isn’t nearly as great and powerful as its reputation would have it. Frankly, how liberal can the “mainstream” be in an era when Fox News is the most-watched cable news network, when the conservative Daily Wire news site far outstrips every other publisher on Facebook, and when Ben Shapiro’s podcast is consistently ranked among the most popular in the United States? There was a time when the liberal-dominated media in this country had something like a monopoly on national news and commentary, but that time is long past. “The talk radio revolution pioneered by Rush Limbaugh and the rise of Fox News,” Jonah Goldberg noted recently, “can only be understood as a rebellion against the hegemony — real or perceived — of the liberal media.”

That rebellion succeeded. It did so not by making the legacy media more conservative — if anything, traditional news outlets are more left-leaning than ever — but by creating a parallel media universe that tilts well to the right and attracts a vast audience of its own. Like so much else in America these days, the media are deeply polarized. Liberals have their news outlets; conservatives have theirs. It isn’t ideal. Our society would be healthier if Americans shared more common ground, or if journalists operating in the right- and left-wing echo chambers had more respect for those with a different worldview. In the meantime, partisans on both sides can complain about bias in the media. And if journalists don’t like how an election turns out, well, there’s always another one on the horizon.

(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).

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